Speaking to and About Israel
Posted on Jan 15, 2015
At the first-ever Israeli conference devoted to the religious thought and political activism of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, former professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at JTS, which took place in Jerusalem a few weeks ago, my subject was the talk that Heschel himself gave in Jerusalem in 1957 at a conference of world Jewish leaders gathered by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and future president Zalman Shazar. Speaker after speaker focused on the challenges facing the Jewish people, inside and outside the Land of Israel, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the founding of the State. Heschel, in pointed contrast, declared that “the problem of the individual is the urgent issue of our time. If we do not build a house for the individual, we shall labor in vain in the building of a nation.” He called for attention to the struggles of the soul, and renewal of faith and observance in the new Jewish State. He also lovingly but bitingly critiqued the notion (held by Ben-Gurion and many others in the room that day) that Jewish sovereignty had superseded the need for piety and God, as Israel, in their view, had eliminated the need for the Diaspora. It is clear in retrospect that Heschel’s call for more Judaism in the Jewish State is one that needed to be heard then and now.
I came away from the conference, and from careful study of Heschel’s talk, wondering what we Jews of North America, in our day, should be saying to Israel and about Israel, and how we should be saying it—questions rendered still more urgent by the horrific events that took place in Paris last week and the multiple ways that Israel quickly became a major part of the story. These Islamic terrorists, like others, were prepared to kill indiscriminately, and did—and yet they took particular aim at Jews. French men and women of all persuasions reacted to the killings with a mixture of fear and defiance, but French Jews had particular cause for concern. The victims of the kosher market rampage were laid to rest Tuesday in Jerusalem, as their families (and many other French Jews) announced that they are considering aliyah to Israel, whose prime ministers invited them with open arms and where terrorists murdered worshippers at a synagogue in Jerusalem two months ago. After the carnage in Paris, the Jewish State seems more necessary to Jewish survival than ever before. It also seems to stand front and center in the global battle against terrorism. Israel’s importance in that war is out of all proportion to the country’s small size and population. When Israel occupies such a prominent place on the agenda of world leaders, and on the world Jewish agenda, when Jews have once again been singled out by history, North American Jews dare not be silent where Israel is concerned. Our voices more than ever must be as strong, loving, judicious, faithful—and honest—as we can make them. What shall we say, as Jews, here and now, to Israel? And—no less important—how should we say it?
Can We Speak Openly and Honestly in the Diaspora About Israel?
It occurred to me more than once, during this recent stay in Israel, that one of the greatest pleasures of spending extended time there—for Jews like me who love the place passionately, and therefore worry passionately about its future—is the ability to take part in no-holds-barred conversation on the issues of the day. In America, one often holds back because of worries that public criticism of Israeli society or government policy will play into the hands of Israel’s enemies (whose existence and determination, after this summer’s war with Gaza, and the proclamations of the terrorists last week, cannot be doubted by anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear). Some vocal supporters of Israel go too far, in my view, and contend that all criticism should be forbidden, no matter how responsibly it is offered, whether in public or in private. They try to shut down debate and serious discussion about Israel among North American Jews—and to a large extent have succeeded. Conversation about the Jewish State these days is often stilted and halting. Dissent is frowned upon. Honesty and candor are in short supply. So is depth. In Israel, by contrast, no one shies away from argument and the more heated the better. Election season has only made that debate sharper and more vociferous.
It amazes me sometimes that, after so many years, so many twists and turns of history, and so many disappointed hopes, Israelis are still engaged by the issues of war and peace, and continue to express guarded optimism that this election, or the one after it, might yield real change. They have no choice but to care: the future of their country and their families is on the line. Their sons and daughters are in battle, and they run to the shelters when the siren sounds. Conversation about Israel among Israeli Jews is further enriched by the fact that it is set in the context of dozens of other concerns, both personal and collective, all of them Jewish by virtue of land, language, and history. Table talk among my friends and colleagues moves easily from what our kids are doing, to the jobs people are taking and the projects on which they are working, to Netanyahu’s chances of retaining power after the upcoming election and whether that is a good thing, to the pros and cons of resuming peace negotiations with Palestinians right now, to the steep cost of housing and the rising cost of university, to growing Haredi power, and back to the joy or prospect of grandchildren.
The tenor of political debate is raised immeasurably when ideology gives way to uncertainty, as it inevitably does when siblings or spouses argue politics at the dinner table. Israelis know that their government is composed of quarrelsome individuals, factions and parties that are the very opposite of united when it comes to policy. The media and the politicians talk of “left” versus “right,” but actual points of view held by thoughtful Israelis of every stripe are thankfully far more difficult to categorize. Two former members of the Knesset told me about the alliances they had forged with MKs who held very different views, and of their respect for those individuals. They judged colleagues by integrity and thoughtfulness, not party line.
I confess that I was deeply moved when two other Israelis, both former government officials, urged me and other Diaspora leaders to speak up more, both publicly and privately, on the wide range of matters that affect our shared Jewish future. It did not take the Paris killings to make it clear that Jews around the world are directly impacted by Israeli government actions and policy. Indeed, one question that Israeli and Diaspora Jews need to address is whether Israeli policymakers should take the wishes and well-being of Diaspora Jews into account when plotting battles and defenses, and if so, how.
On this as so many other things (e.g., legislation concerning converts, treatment of refugees from North Africa, funding for and recognition of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, application of Jewish law to Knesset legislation), Israelis will have the last word and should. But we Diaspora Jews should not be shut out from this conversation, privately or publicly, and need not be fearful that honest debate among us will somehow wreak havoc in ways that debate among Israelis, in this age of Internet transparency, does not. We are one people, after all; the State acts in our name, in pursuit of Jewish interests; it often cites the tradition we share, and the God we all worship, as authority for its actions. What is more, Israel needs vigorous and imaginative Jewish thought and conversation by Jews from around the world on these matters, and we for our part need it too, lest we continue to alienate young Jews who have been told that their voices are only welcome regarding Israel if they toe the line on government or communal policy, and alienate not-so-young Jews who have received a similar message.
Our criterion of judgment, like that of the Israelis I spoke with over the past few weeks, should be how informed and knowledgeable speakers about Israel are; how thoughtful and responsible their speech; and whether their criticism is offered from a place of love and support for the State and its people. I have little patience, this week in particular, for Jews or Gentiles who instinctively rush to blame Israel for everything, see no good in anything it does and no wrong in its opponents, and do not understand—or try to understand—how 3,000 years of Jewish history has brought us to this point. The hateful chants of the jihadists echo Pharaoh’s call to genocide long ago, one that Jews read from the Torah, in a sobering coincidence of timing, in synagogue this past Shabbat.
We in the Jewish community need to get past the widespread fear that any dissent from Israeli government policy, or this or that version of Zionism, is going to endanger us so much that it can’t be tolerated. We lose far more than we gain by shutting down artists and filmmakers, student activists, and scholars. Let the gates to conversation about Israel be opened wide, trusting that Israel’s case on the merits is strong enough to withstand any challenge. We can best fight the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions crowd with reasoned, passionate arguments, as long as we make sure that all Jews who care—whatever their age, religious stream, or politics—have the knowledge needed to make those arguments stick. JTS will continue to do its part in those efforts.
What Shall We Say When We Speak about Israel?
Heschel made it clear from his very first words in the 1957 talk that the Jews of the Diaspora and the Jews of Israel were part of one shared story. The Holocaust had shattered all of us with “the black fire of ruin and disaster.” With the establishment of the State, “the whole Jewish world was filled with light.” We too should demonstrate that unity of fate and purpose by saying as clearly as we can what needs to be said to and about Israel, ever careful to exhibit balance as well as context. That means due attention to history and complexity, as well as dwelling lovingly and at length on the achievements of the State, which no one with historical sensitivity can ever take for granted.
In Tel Aviv, where I happily spent time recently, those achievements present themselves vividly in day-to-day realities: the scale and design of the buildings, for example; the liveliness of the café culture and the arts; the experimentation with Jewish education and synagogue life; the routine mixing of classes and ethnicities; the bookstores that stock current and classical Judaica in abundance alongside Israeli literature, world politics, and every other subject; the hi-tech revolution in full force. The city possesses remarkable calm, compared to Jerusalem, a gift perhaps of the ever-present sea. Perhaps only a poet can do justice to the wonder of it all (hence my appreciation for Heschel’s lyrical prose), the best part being that Tel Aviv, unlike Jerusalem, just is, without making too big a deal of itself or its holiness. The spectacular achievement of the quotidian in Israel only adds to one’s despondency at the lack of progress toward anything resembling peace.
Four matters on the current Israeli agenda seem to me to cry out for the attention and voices of Jews from North America right now with special urgency; Jews who, like Heschel and many others, speak from inside Jewish tradition and out of the experience of Jewish history even when they tell Israelis things that not all of them want to hear.
First, just as the Jewish community of North America needs to facilitate conversion to Judaism, a measure that would arguably help combat the alarming rate at which intermarried Jews are lost to assimilation, so too Israel’s government needs to take action to facilitate conversion to Judaism. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who came to Israel by the Law of Return, but are not halakhically Jewish, will not even consider converting due to the current monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate and its rigid and unfriendly system; many more are due to make aliyah in the coming months and years. At present, their conversion is stymied by Haredi intransigence and governmental inaction. Legislation aimed at reforming the process by empowering municipal rabbis throughout Israel to perform conversations (though it would not provide for non-Orthodox conversions) was about to be passed several weeks ago when the governing coalition dissolved, and no one knows what its fate will be after the upcoming elections. Jews both inside and outside Israel need to be heard on this matter. The Jewish people cannot afford to lose hundreds of thousands of souls to communal or governmental politics and red tape.
Second, just as the American Jewish community (like many members of Congress, Republican as well as Democrat) steadfastly supports reform of US immigration policy in a way that humanely addresses the problem of illegal immigrants at the same time as it secures the borders and provides for fairness and equity (who among us is not the child or grandchild of immigrants?), so too Israel needs a more rational and humane solution to the presence of tens of thousands of African refugees. Many of them live in South Tel Aviv. Most are caught in frightening limbo by changing (and often cruel) government policy and the threat of detention. Their plight cries out for our assistance.
Third, we should continue to support efforts at strengthening Israeli democracy and pluralism. This includes the ability to get married, divorced, or buried without rabbinic approval; provision of resources and legitimacy to diverse streams of Judaism, not only Orthodoxy (several weeks ago JTS rabbinical students tried to daven Minhahwhile visiting the Knesset and were told that only Orthodox services are permitted there, as only Orthodox congregations and rabbis get government support and recognition), and educational programs that counter the rising tide of chauvinism, intolerance of minorities, and anti-Arab violence. There has been notable progress on these fronts in recent years, as well as steps backwards that are cause for grave concern. The Masorti Movement too has made impressive gains despite the lack of a level playing field. Our Jewish State should be the framework where various notions of Jewishness and Judaism compete for the allegiance of Israel’s Jews, leading to the flowering of many streams—including the “secular” form I have come to call “Tel Aviv Judaism”—to a degree that cannot happen in the Diaspora. There is room in that Jewish State for a flourishing Arab minority. The possibilities remain immense, highlighted in recent weeks by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin.
Finally, and most difficult of all, there is the matter of the “peace process.” I speak about this matter in my name only, and not that of JTS or Conservative Judaism or my family and closest friends. I do so knowing there is ample room for disagreement with my opinion, and therefore speak up in order to encourage the airing of divergent views and counter the stultifying silence in which honest discussion of Israel is too often buried these days. Please read these words—formulated in Tel Aviv before the Paris murders, and refined in the Diaspora in the wake of those killings—in this spirit.
I’ve never been one who believed that if only Israel took this or that step, there would be peace with Palestinians and Arab neighbors. “Peace Now” for me always meant that one should do whatever one can to encourage rather than preclude an agreement, all the while making sure that Israel’s security is advanced rather than undermined. A large number of reserve generals, former chiefs of staff, and former heads of the intelligence services have testified in recent months that Israel could and should be more flexible in its approach to peace. That is good enough for me. I wish those on the “right” would desist from denouncing such Israeli leaders—and Jews who agree with them—as traitors and seeking to discredit them, and that those on the “left” would stop dismissing concerns for Israel’s security and distrust of the PLO and love for the Land of Israel as disingenuous. My view is that Israel faces truly terrifying decisions right now. My sense—shared humbly but with conviction—is that not facing up to them is more dangerous still. The Middle East is fraught with instability. And yet time is not on our side.
I am in no rush to give back the portions of the Land of Israel, full of associations with our Bible and our sages, that Jews call Judea and Samaria. But I am greatly troubled by settler leaders who do not cite security as their main reason for opposing withdrawal (a concern I share) but Israel’s “eternal right” to all of the biblical Land of Israel or preparation for the coming of the Messiah or the supreme value of the Land of Israel over the people of Israel or the Torah of Israel. One would have to be blind not to see the risk to Israel’s survival from a Middle East in full-scale turmoil even without a nuclear Iran—and the prospect of Iranian nuclear arms, absent iron-clad guarantees for Israel, is frightening. One would have to be naïve to trust any Palestinian faction, no matter how “moderate,” with Israel’s security. Not being clairvoyant, I cannot tell what would have happened had Yitzhak Rabin not been assassinated or Ariel Sharon stricken or Ehud Olmert driven from office. I do not understand any more than the next person how a divided Jerusalem could serve as the capital of two states, or how the gap between Israel’s concessions and Palestinians’ demands can be bridged.
But I also see the dangers of sitting still on top of the powder keg that is rule by force over another people, its numbers not much smaller than ours. I have not heard a single credible road map from those who would deny Palestinians all hope of a state of their own, alongside Israel. And I am persuaded by the many Israelis of diverse parties, right and left, who believe there is virtue in talking with Palestinians right now, because negotiations once begun may lead somewhere useful—probably not to peace, but perhaps to a small step in the direction of peace that will, in turn, lead to another small step, and another.
The eternal vocation of the Jewish people does not mandate any particular foreign policy for Israel, let alone a vote for any particular party in coming elections. But it does command Jews to keep our eyes uplifted to the miracle that is Israel, as Heschel did that day in Jerusalem, and to make sure that our direction is always set to the purposes that Israel—people and State—should serve in the world: “We shall not succeed in repairing our house in the Diaspora without close relations with Israel, without the air of the land of Israel. The Diaspora Jew has not only a duty to give but a right to receive as well: inspiration from Zion, faith from Zion.”
The horrors of terrorism do not discredit that conviction, but underline its importance. We Jews will triumph over our enemies in this as in past generations by being Jews, faithful to our ideals, and never despairing about God or the humanity created in God’s image. I admit that I myself, at this point in time, in my limited imaginings, cannot describe a scenario in which anything resembling peace can be achieved for Israel anytime soon, anymore than I can see an easy exit from the battle with the jihadists. In the former, as in the latter, I dare not imagine what will happen if a solution is not found. But, as a religious Jew, I have faith that the Jewish people has not come this far, invested so much, built so wisely, sacrificed so enormously, loved Israel with such overwhelming love just to arrive at a dead end. If we cannot think our way to a solution, “help will surely come from someplace other” than our power of thought. But, in the meantime, let’s think and talk as much and as wisely as we can. Any and all reason for hope, from whatever quarter it comes, should be warmly solicited and welcomed.